Old Men in Love by Alasdair Gray
|Old Men in Love by Alasdair Gray
|Category: Literary Fiction
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason
|Summary: The posthumous papers of John Tunnock reveal plans to write THE great Scottish book...the papers are edited by Gray into something presumably erudite, but which this reviewer simply failed to appreciate. Fans of Lanark will no doubt adore it.
|Date: October 2007
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
With my somewhat eclectic taste, tendency to pick up books from the piles of unread or discarded, and off-centre (or some would say warped) sense of humour, I have probably come across a few strange writings in my time. None however compares to Old Men in Love (Are Still Learning), which purports to be the posthumous papers of one John Tunnock.
This is a decidedly odd book.
The conceit is that retired Glasgow schoolteacher and aspiring but failed writer, John Tunnock, is brutally murdered at his home. Or perhaps he just falls down the stairs. Or was pushed. Who knows? It doesn't seem to have much relevance to the story so perhaps we should just let it pass. His estate is passed to his only living relative, Lady Sarah Sim-Jaegar, who expresses all of the snootiness of her titled background beautifully enshrined in the money-grabbing greed of her adopted LA home as she provides her utterly pointless introduction to the papers he has left behind. Knowing nothing of her kin and having no interest in the papers, she explains how they came to her and how Alasdair Gray came to edit them. Insights she offers none at all.
The papers themselves consist of a few diary entries, part of a personal memoir, and the drafts for a convoluted book which chooses to examine Socrates' Athens, Florentine Italy through the eyes of the painter Brother Filippo, and Victorian England as experienced by an obscure religious sect - to an end that eludes me.
Will Self offers up 'a short review' for the dust cover of the hardback publication, which is itself so rambling and pseudo-erudite that one can only assume that he feels about the resulting work much as I do - not very positive - or that one needs a Will Self kind of mentality to appreciate it. Indeed: had anyone given me the book 'blind' and subsequently indicated that Self was the author... I would not have doubted. It reeks of his generation and his milieu. To discover that Gray (of whom I admit prior ignorance) is in his 70s came as something of a shock... and leaves me convinced that whatever else he may or may not have in common with the late Mr Tunnock... his writings are from his own unused ideas book.
Nothing wrong with that. In principle. It is just that combining them in this disjointed fashion simply does not work. Worse than that - it ill-serves ungerminated seed in each of the ideas. Had they been developed separately - at least one, and probably two or three eminently readable, provocative, fun pieces could have resulted.
The diary entries are Adrian Mole for grown-ups - sharp, personal, topical.
The Athens section is simply far too short - and not well served by having "Socrates on Trial" separated from the introduction to the Athenian mindset, by most of the rest of the book. It is however the beginnings of a historical critique of modern politics masquerading as a modern critique of history. That he manipulates the historical record by having witnesses at the trial who were already dead by then is the kind of fiction admitted by general consent when it works. It just about works - though I could have lived without the lisping Alcibiades who is straight out of Carry On Critias (or something similar).
I'll pass over the Florentines on the grounds having been utterly failed to have been engaged by them.
And so on to the Victorians. This could have been a satirical masterpiece if only Gray didn't feel the need to be so clever. With the exception of the incidental diaries this is the longest single section and tells the tale of the Lampeter Brethren. Not only is the setting Victorian, but the telling is of the simplicity one would expect of Victorian publications. It has the directness of Dickens - but without any attempt to conjure place or character in the kind of detail that could have enlivened it into a read capable of standing on its own as both story and allegory.
I enjoyed this section and read with the pleasure of plot and interpretation... but not enough to raise the whole book into one I could seriously recommend to anyone I know.
My problem, ultimately, is that I have no idea what the book is meant to be. Produced in hardback by Bloomsbury press, it has the look and feel of something from the Folio Society: a serious book, for builders of serious libraries. It comes complete with illustrations and margin notes. I can but assume that this is ironic. For me however the irony would only work if the book itself were funny. Not only did I not find it funny, I couldn't even fully determine whether it's intended to be.
On the whole then, it had its moments - but left me, frankly, baffled.
When a book does this to me I cannot help but assume I am missing something - so of course I trundled off to the web to find out what.
What I am missing, of course, is that Gray is a great writer. An important writer.
The first significant Scottish writer since Walter Scott according to Anthony Burgess.
OK. If that's what the intellectuals say - who am I to argue? Just a reader, who wants to be entranced, or entertained, or maybe even frightened - a reader who is more than happy to think and extrapolate and interpret - above all a reader one who hopes to have gained something by the end of the book: be it amusement or insight or just the satisfaction of a ripping good plot well executed. I didn't get any of that and so I still cannot whole-heartedly recommend the book.
My personal rating would probably be a feeble 2-star (only if you must) - but having read around the book, I suspect that is harsh and that fans of the author will find much to amuse and delight so I'm prepared to raise it to 3.
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